Where exactly “up north” begins and ends is up for perennial debate, but few would argue the Brainerd Lakes Area falls smack dab in the middle of the debate. With its sprawling lakes, award-winning golf courses, charming downtowns, and exciting attractions, this central-Minnesota vacation destination continues to draw new and repeat visitors for timeless summer fun.
The area’s newest attraction is dedicated to one of its oldest draws: the common loon. Located in downtown Crosslake, the National Loon Center will be home to an interactive museum scheduled to open in 2024. Until then, visitors can check out the temporary outdoor exhibits, stop by The Nest visitor center, and take an educational boat tour on the Loons & Lakes StewardShip, the new floating classroom.
The loon’s call is a quintessential part of the Brainerd Lakes Area experience, whether you stay on a big lake like Gull or Pelican, or one of the smaller lakes on the Whitefish Chain. These lakes are home to a variety of lodging options, many of which have been family owned and operated for generations. Whether you prefer hotel-style accommodations, a small log cabin, or a luxurious townhome, you will find it here.
One resort that offers all of the above and more is Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake. The sprawling property recently completed a $50 million expansion that added a new 60-room boutique hotel, indoor/outdoor pool, and what it claims to be the largest outdoor Jacuzzi in Minnesota. Guests and area visitors can take advantage of Grand View’s many amenities, including the full-service spa, multiple restaurants, two championship golf courses, and the summer concert series.
Speaking of golf, the Brainerd Lakes Area is one of Minnesota’s top spots for teeing up. The Classic at Madden’s, Deacon’s Lodge at Breezy Point, and the Legacy Courses at Cragun’s all made Golf Digest’s top 25 list this year based on the magazine’s seven scoring criteria: shot options, challenge, layout variety, distinctiveness, aesthetics, conditioning, character, and its newest category, fun. Minnesota golf legend Tom Lehman is behind a $10 million renovation and expansion project at Cragun’s that’s set to be completed in 2023.
Ready to grab a drink after your round? Nisswa’s Roundhouse Brewery boasts one of the area’s best patios and has expanded to offer axe throwing and weekly events including bingo and meat raffles, with proceeds benefiting local charities. Two more breweries—Big Axe Brewing Co. and Main Street Ale House—can be found in downtown Nisswa, and Brainerd is home to the area’s only cocktail room at 5Rocks Distilling Co.
For family fun, it doesn’t get much better than Nisswa’s weekly turtle races. Held every Wednesday afternoon from June through mid-August, the races have been a summer tradition for more than 50 years. Kids and adults alike line up and pay $5 for their chance at picking the fastest turtle. Only one turtle will win, but everyone will have a good time.
If you’re looking for something slightly speedier, Brainerd International Raceway hosts a wide variety of events all summer long, including drag races, motorcycle and superbike races, power cruises, and more. The annual Lakes Jam music festival (June 23-25) features camping, racing, and performances by headliners Tesla, Jon Pardi, Cole Swindell, and
cover band Hairball.
Surrounding the towns and tourist attractions is what brought people to this area in the first place: the great outdoors. Popular pursuits include biking on the roughly 120-mile Paul Bunyan State Trail, paddling on the Crow Wing River, boating and fishing on area lakes (fishing guides and boat rentals available), and zip-lining through the trees with Brainerd Zip Line Tour.
No trip to the Brainerd Lakes Area is complete without a photo with the big man himself: Paul Bunyan. There’s one outside the classic A-Pine Restaurant in Pequot Lakes, but the most popular Paul sits outside Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd. The 26-foot-tall talking lumberjack has been greeting visitors by name since 1954.
Top it off with a scoop from the Chocolate Ox in downtown Nisswa and a souvenir or two from a local boutique, and you’ve got yourself an Up North vacation to remember.